Catholic interpretation of Bible differs from Protestants’


Catholics are often criticized for not knowing the Bible as well as their Protestant brothers and sisters. Many Protestants are able to quote texts and to answer questions about their beliefs with a line from the Bible, while Catholics are not so quick on the draw.
The biblical knowledge of the average Catholic has increased dramatically during the past 30 years, thanks to the Church’s encouragement of Bible study programs, as well as the introduction of a three-year cycle of Sunday readings and the preaching based on those many new texts.
But even Catholics with an extensive knowledge of the Bible — and there are many now —have not always found it easier to discuss the Bible with Protestants or to state the biblical basis for Catholic beliefs.
The main reason for this is because Catholics and many Protestants have different starting points for interpreting the Bible. I will refer here to three of these differences: concern about the literary form of a passage, the use of the Old Testament, and the context of Church tradition.
Many Protestants are fundamentalists, meaning in practice that they interpret each word or phrase in the Bible at face value, without reference to differences in culture from ancient to modern times, and without attention to the particular literary form of a passage.
Catholics are taught that the first step in interpretation of the Bible is the same as for other literature, to identify the literary form in the original context. In the newspaper that means: is it a report or an editorial, a straight commentary or a satire? For the Bible it might mean: is it a history or a parable, a Gospel or a psalm, is it spiritual or biological (which affects, for example, the interpretation of “born again”)? This applies also to phrases: are they literal or metaphorical (“She laughed her head off”)?
Catholics consider the whole Bible divinely inspired, but give a different weight to the Old Testament and the New in matters of doctrine and spiritual guidance. The Catholic principle here is that revelation is progressive up to Christ. In other words, as the people of God moved through history, God worked with us according to our understanding, preparing us gradually for the full revelation in Jesus Christ.
Some Old Testament norms are not final and have to be read in light of the New Testament. An example would be Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5: “You have heard … but I tell you …”.
The most important norm in Catholic interpretation is the authentic tradition of the Church. The Bible was given to the believing community of Jesus’ disciples, not to individuals, and only the community, acting under the Spirit’s guidance through its appointed leaders, is empowered to define its teaching. The contemporary Church reads the Bible in the context of the tradition of interpretation through the centuries in order to locate the constants.
In John 13, for example, Jesus issued a strong mandate: if you consider me your teacher and Lord, you must imitate me in washing one another’s feet. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that this may be taken metaphorically, as meaning loving service. Only Church tradition has the authority to warrant such an interpretation.
Difficulties in discussing the Bible experienced by Catholics and Protestants may arise not from lack of Bible knowledge but from different approaches to biblical interpretation.


What are you thoughts on these differences?  Please comment.

2 thoughts on “Catholic interpretation of Bible differs from Protestants’

  1. HI there,

    Fascinating post, that reflects the approaches that different sects within the same religion adopt in interpreting scripture. The literal and allegorical approaches have unfortunately cost much in blood, in terms of one sect group holding the other as ‘apostates’. This has cost countless deaths within Europe, and only ceased when people got really tired of it. Islam being a younger religion seems to be following the same pattern. An early schism embedded in different approaches to interpreting texts is arguably the very cause of it. Now my question is, is it fair that people blame the actual revelation for this bloodbath that humanity has experienced, or is it simply the nature of man and his inaptitude to show restraint? and what does religion today has to offer in terms of ethics?

    1. Thanks for the very nice post and I hope you return with more in the future.
      It is too bad that many people have lost their lives for their own beliefs, many have been martyred for His name. This I believe will continue until the end of time, but dying as a martyr is not a bad thing. Dying as a good Christian in good standing with our Lord Jesus is the way I want to go. I won’t however allow someone to force me and my family into doing something or believing in something against my will, that would lead to someone dying. Here in the USA, I have the right to carry a weapon at all times and I pray I never have to kill someone but that would be one reason for me to use my weapon. If someone begins shooting at me in the name of their god, they better hope I get hit first.
      I am not blaming revelation for the stupidity of others, I think the bloodbaths start with just that, the stupidity of others. Man needs to show restraint, killing others is wrong and sinful and there is no religion that should promote killing of others.
      OK, I will put an end to this comment now. I get too emotionally involved when it comes to this issue.
      Thanks so much for the comment.

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